For animal lovers, one of the best things about traveling is the opportunity to see wild animals in their natural habitat around the world. The last thing you want to do as an animal lover however, is contribute to the exploitation, abuse and even death of animals in the name of tourism. This is why choosing ethical animal sanctuaries and safari parks is so essential.
Unfortunately, the animal tourism industry is rife with unethical practices and it can be very hard to navigate this as a traveler. Which is why we’re here to help. If you want to visit animal sanctuaries or take that safari, consider this your guide to choosing ethical options to visit and which ones we recommend.
What is an Animal Sanctuary?
You may be wondering, “What is an animal sanctuary?” Well, animal sanctuaries are just what they sound like – a place for animals to live safely and peacefully. These are usually non-profit entities that don’t breed or trade the animals.
Animal sanctuaries typically house rescued animals, and allow them to live as close to natural lives as possible with their own species. Many of the animals are rescued from working in the tourist industry, zoos, labs, or circuses and need to be rehabilitated after experiencing traumatic abuse.
What is a Safari?
Safaris involve taking expeditions to observe animals in their natural habitat. You’ll often see safari’s labeled as safari parks, game reserves or wildlife preserves, but many of these names are misleading.
Safaris are an incredibly popular tourist activity, especially African safaris, and they are available throughout the world. Safaris may take place anywhere from one day to one month and the accommodation options vary from camping, glamping, lodges or hotels.
Are Animal and Safari Parks Ethical?
Currently, animal tourism is huge, which has created the demand for numerous illegal activities throughout the industry. The illegal wildlife trade is the fourth most profitable international crime globally.
A great way to directly combat this however, is to fight fire with fire. By supporting ethical animal sanctuaries, parks and conservations, these offerings become more profitable than the illegal ones. This greatly lessens the demand for illegal wildlife trading, poaching and breeding. Supporting ethical animal tourism in areas where illegal activities are most common is especially important.
With the recent backlash against animal tourism, and more travelers looking for ethical options, many organizations have seemed to adapt. However, these changes may be more surface level than genuine.
Today, you’ll find the majority of organizations tend to market themselves as a sanctuary, rescue, conservancy or ethical and these labels are often not entirely transparent. The organization's website may look good, but behind the scenes, or once you’re onsite, it’s an entirely different story.
Unethical Animal Tourism Practices
There are several primary issues with animal tourism. While some may be specific to certain industries, like ivory trading or tiger trafficking, many of these issues are prevalent throughout the industry, like illegal breeding and abuse.
Let’s start with abuse. Many organizations, even some that may call themselves sanctuaries, abuse the wildlife that live there. In order for a powerful animal like an elephant or tiger to allow close human contact without anything happening, they have to have gone through a horrific “breaking” process. This involves beating, whipping, even stabbing or burning the animal into submission and control.
Oftentimes organizations will drug their animals as well, especially when they offer things like “tiger cub cuddling” or any close, consistent human-animal contact. Once animals get too hurt to perform, or too old to be cute, they are often killed by their owners as they are no longer profitable but expensive to care for.
Another type of abuse that animals will endure is inhumane living conditions. Animals may be isolated from one another, and starved or not fed an adequate diet. Most wild animals need an ample amount of space to roam and live freely, yet many places will chain up the animals, keep them in small cages, without enough space for the animals to thrive.
Additionally, animals aren’t meant to perform or interact with humans all day, if at all. It’s important to remember that while animal tourism may be profitable, it’s also expensive to take care of the animals themselves. Many organizations in this business are only looking to make money, and taking care of the animals' welfare may not be a priority, or they may not have the resources to do so.
When animals spend all day interacting with humans, their physical and mental welfare is endangered. Some animals, like tigers or gorillas, are susceptible to human diseases. Many animals, such as elephants, get sick from the stress of constant human contact, or from the exhaustion of having to be awake far more than they should. Tigers, for example, need to sleep the majority of the day. All of this can have a profound effect on the animals' health and commonly results in their death.
Common Problems Related to Wildlife Tourism
Another issue with animal tourism is the prevalence of breeding and the demand it creates for it. Organizations may start breeding animals onsight, which is unnatural and unethical, as more animals equals more profits. It’s not uncommon for some organizations to label themselves as a “rescue” while they are really breeding the animals instead. Others may breed them in order to sell them to animal reserves and simply forge their documents, claiming their rescues.
Poaching is directly related to animal tourism and the demand for animal souvenirs and goods. Countries that have ample, valuable wildlife often have significant poaching issues both on reserves and in the wild. Some safaris, though less common now, actually offer onsite poaching. This is clearly unethical and if you ever come across an organization that offers hunting, please do not support them and report them if this is an option.
There is a direct correlation to poaching and animal tourism. When governments have prioritized setting up animal sanctuaries and employing poachers as rangers or paying them not to poach, the poaching significantly goes down. If the local community can benefit from animal tourism, they won’t need the poaching money and the problem will dramatically decrease. This is why it’s important to support ethical sanctuaries and reserves in areas where poaching is a problem.
Why You Should Choose Ethical Animal Sanctuaries and Safaris
So what’s the solution? Thankfully, you don’t necessarily have to completely boycott every form of animal tourism. There are ethical and necessary means of animal tourism that help combat problems like poaching and rehabilitating and rescuing abused and endangered animals. Supporting truly ethical organizations is the best, and only, responsible animal tourism option.
Keep in mind that there are several things as tourists that are never ethical and should always be avoided. Ethical animal sanctuaries wouldn’t allow these activities, but it’s great to know what they are as a responsible tourist. Avoid riding an elephant (or any animal), cuddling or touching any wild animals, or bathing with any animals.
Below we’ll cover everything you need to know when choosing what animal sanctuaries or safaris to support to ensure that they are truly an ethical option.
How to Tell if Safari Parks & Animal Sanctuaries Are Ethical
- Do extensive research. What are the reviews for the park and what’s been written about it? Are they transparent about how they operate or are things still unclear? World Animal Protection is a great resource for staying up to date on unethical animal practices around the world.
- Ask a lot of questions. Inquire directly with the company about how the animals are treated, how they live, if they use chains, what types of interaction they allow and how they got their animals – are they buying or rescuing?
- If a safari promises close animal sightings, that’s a bad sign. Safari’s shouldn’t be able to guarantee getting close up to any animal unless they are using unethical methods like tracking and baiting.
- No truly ethical animal sanctuary or safari would allow visitors to ride, bathe with, cuddle, or even touch the wildlife.
- Review posted photos to see if there are any physical bullhooks, goads or chains on the property.
- Avoid any organization that allows close up, personal wildlife photo opportunities.
- Check their credentials! Global Sanctuary Federation provides a database of accredited wildlife sanctuaries.
- Check where the money goes – does it go back to the local community? Do they employ local people, or are they locally run? Many of these parks are located in poorer communities that don’t benefit at all from this tourism. Local people may be forced out of their homes and land in order for safari parks to expand.
- Never support a park that intentionally breeds animals – this is different from rescued and protected animals that may naturally breed overtime.
- Ethical parks should recreate as close to a natural environment as possible. Ensure that the park provides adequate, humane living conditions with ample space for roaming, playing and living.
- If a safari offers transportation options that involve riding the animal, do not support them. Safari’s are only ethical and sustainable if they conduct their expeditions using proper safari vehicles or by walking. Anything else is bad for the wildlife and the grounds.
- Check or inquire about their viewing practices. How do they ensure the animals or the grounds aren’t disturbed by safari expeditions? Do they allow flash photography? Do they require a safe distance from the animal or that the guests stay in their car and talk at a low volume?
- Do they have any sustainability measures onsite or conservation efforts on the grounds to ensure that the natural land is also preserved and maintained?
- Check that the park allows the animals to socialize and live with their same and compatible species. Socializing and forming healthy, natural relationships should be at the forefront for any truly ethical organization. If the sanctuary is rehabilitating rescued animals, helping them get back into their environment and with their own species is crucial.
- Ensure that the sanctuary or park provides life-long, adequate care to the animals. No ethical organization would be selling, trading or discarding wildlife at any age or health.
The Best Ethical Animal Sanctuaries & Safari’s
Located 400km southwest of Chiang Mai, Thailand, Never Forget Elephant Foundation is a fantastic ethical elephant sanctuary. They focus on elephant conservation, rescuing captive elephants and rehabilitating them in a close natural environment. They employ and partner with local people as well.
They offer immersive, educational experiences and retreats, as well as hiking and observing alongside the elephants. Check out our full feature and their work here.
Lilongle Wildlife Centre in Malawi
Located in Malawi, Lilongle is an accredited wildlife sanctuary with a focus on education and sustainability. They are home to over 200 rescued animals and run a popular volunteer program.
They allow for educational visits to the property for schools and group tours, as well as host educational workshops and training for those in the field.
Saruni Safari in Kenya
Saruni is a remote wildlife reserve that offers several different accommodation locations and safaris. They offer both a jeep safari and a hiking safari which are led by local Indigenous guides.
They work with various conservation groups and deeply invest in the local community. The lodge itself is one of a kind, as is the rhino walking safari.
Explore Kruger National Park, one of the most renowned national parks in the world, with G Adventures, a reputable, sustainable tour company.
On this 7 day journey you’ll take safari rides through Kruger, visit several wildlife conservancies and animal sanctuaries, and stay at a reputable, private reserve.
Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia
An NGO and one of the only recognized truly ethical elephant sanctuaries in Cambodia, Elephant Valley Project is a great option. They are home to 10 rescued animals that live in a spacious natural jungle habitat.
Visitors can come for a day to a week, or do an intensive retreat. They are only allowed to trek into the jungle to observe the elephants with no interactions. Elephant Valley Project is also heavily focused on forest restoration and protection and they employ local, Indigenous guides.
Overall, the majority of ethical animal sanctuaries and conservancies are not open to the public but they do offer volunteer programs. This is a great way to learn about the animals, the challenges they may face, and spend an extended period of time helping to care for them. A great organization that helps travelers find organizations to volunteer at is Animal Experience International. You can find them here.
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